Oscar A. Pohlig Jr. worked in his family's box company building at 2419 E. Franklin St. for 33 years and the strangest thing he remembers happening was the time an employee broke his arm when he overrode the safety mechanism on his press.
The creaky old manufacturing building, constructed in 1853, had been a tobacco warehouse and, for a short time, a Civil War hospital. But to Pohlig, it was home. It was where giant presses and printing machines made bakery cartons for Ukrop's, gift boxes for Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimers, and Girl Scout cookie boxes. He felt comfortable walking the building, fortressed by its hoary bricks, arched windows, moaning floorboards and clanging pipes.
After Pohlig retired and sold the business, he began renting the building to Joe Guthrie, whose company, Showcase, liquidated department store fixtures and displays. Guthrie bought the building in 1997 as he prepared to move into retail operations in Richmond, selling and renting the company's eclectic collection of display items everything from carousel horses to fake Santa Claus ice sculptures. But that would mean major renovations to the building.
Since about the time the renovations began in late 1998, employees say, the tranquil and even mundane building Oscar Pohlig describes has churned to life. People see things now. They see shadows, they see figures, they see other people. Coming out of the walls.
They hear bells that shouldn't be ringing, footsteps where no one could be walking, rattling of chains, creaking of floorboards, doors opening and closing in an otherwise empty building.
Something, it seems, has disturbed the dead.
Joe Guthrie is an immediately likable guy with a direct gaze, an encyclopedic knowledge of retail and the whitest hair allowed on a 56-year-old man. He's owned a chicken business, an office furniture business, and now this. Showcase purchases fixtures, visual displays and other appointments from big retailers like Macy's and The Limited and resells them to lower-tier retailers. The company also operates a retail outlet where people purchase some of these items for private homes. Practically every inch of the behemoth four-story, 82,000-square-foot building is crammed with department-store display cases, mannequins, artwork, signs, Christmas trees, wall hangings and lighting fixtures. Not the attic, though. The attic is empty.
Like the man who sold him the building, Guthrie spends every single day here and has never experienced anything strange. "I've never been one to believe that sort of thing," he says, but he adds that from the stories he has heard from employees he now believes "something happened."
He is anxious for me to talk to Terry Biringer Jr., an employee who was originally an independent contractor hired to renovate the 7,000-square-foot space now called the gallery. Biringer saw something, Guthrie claims, as did Lance Pittman, vice president of operations. There are plenty of other employees with hair-raising stories, too. In the meantime, Guthrie hands me a manuscript a handy-dandy history of the building researched and written by none other than Oscar A. Pohlig Jr.
Pohlig really did his homework. Exhaustively researched and footnoted, the report draws heavily from Richmond deed books dating back to 1797, more than 25 published materials, numerous interviews and records from the National Archives, U.S. Census and U.S. Corps of Engineers.
The building was designed and built by Capt. John Freeman in 1853. The Daily Dispatch wrote of the building: "Messrs. Turpin & Yarbrough, two of our enterprising tobacco manufacturers, have just erected a large brick building for the accommodation of their business, and a more handsomely arranged one of its kind we have not yet seen in the city." It reported the building to be 50 feet by 84 feet of "mill-type" construction, four stories high, with Greek revival lintels and segmental arch openings over the windows. In 1859, an addition was built.
From 1853 to 1870, the building served as the Turpin-Yarbrough Tobacco factory. But from December 1861 to October 1863, the factory shared the space for The Cause. The oldest sections of the building became the Second Alabama Hospital, treating sick and injured soldiers from Alabama during the Civil War. The second and third floors were "immense sick-wards." More than 3,700 patients were treated here. Three hundred died in the building.
The attic, it is believed, is where they brought the dead. Guthrie's employees call it the morgue.
"I was wondering," I asked Guthrie, "if I might be able to spend some time in the building after hours with a photographer." I'm not really sure what answer I was hoping for. I really wanted to see for myself, but part of me was hoping to hear an answer fraught with words like liability, security and insurance.
"Sure," Guthrie replied. "I'll give you a key and you can stay as late as you'd like."
Steve was wearing a flashlight on his head. As practical as this was, this little contraption gripping the photographer's head over a University of Michigan baseball cap offered the perfect comic relief as we arrived at the building, just as the work day was winding down for everyone else. Clouds were rolling in thick and dense, extinguishing shadows and draping the streets with a dull and colorless pallor.
Soon we would have the place to ourselves, but first: "This is our very best seller ..." the voice echoed down the gallery, where paintings hang on the brick walls and a repro of Michelangelo's David stands guard as he peeks curiously around a brick column. Some of United American's employees and friends had gathered for a candle party and were munching on snacks at the bar at the north end of the gallery.
I wondered how many of them knew the very spot where they sat thumbing through brochures and enjoying hors d'oeuvres was one of the building's paranormal hot spots.
Before this room was carefully appointed with chandeliers and wrap-around bar and oil paintings, it was a shell of a room with uneven concrete floors, sickly green walls and bricks piled 5 feet high. In December 1998, the showcases were stacked so high and so tight, you had to shimmy sideways through a narrow path just to enter the room.
Joe Guthrie hired father/son independent contracting team Terry Biringer Sr. and Jr. to renovate the space.
The Biringers were working in the gallery late one night in January 1999. The senior Biringer had left the building to bring the truck around, and Biringer Jr. was getting ready to leave. It was about 11:30 p.m.
He was walking toward the back of the gallery, the north end, when he felt a jolting change in temperature. "I got freezing cold. Freezing
cold! It made the hair on my arms stand up," he says. At that moment he looked toward the wall that separates the gallery and one of the showrooms. Out of it stepped a man's leg.
He still can see it vividly: a black boot that came just below the knee with a buckle on the outside of the right calf. Suddenly, the three cats who were living in the building rushed Biringer, clinging to his leg, hip and shoulder.
The image advanced farther. "You could tell it was a man. It was as big as I was," says the 6-foot Biringer. "It wasn't defined. I couldn't see fingernails, hair or eyes. It was wearing loose, baggy clothing." It paused for a moment and then disappeared. The cats bolted to the front of the building. Biringer sucked in a chestful of air and made his way at a "brisk pace" through the darkened showroom and out the door. Scrambling into the passenger's side of his truck, he yelled to his father, "Just drive, drive, drive, drive!"
He said nothing until they reached the Huguenot Bridge.
He went home and talked to people who "believe in things like this," he says, forming the quotation marks with his fingers. One book suggested apologizing to the ghost for invading its space. "I came back down here, as silly as I thought it was, and I apologized to the ghost. I told him we were making his space nicer and he could have it back as soon as we were done," Biringer says. Whether or not the ghost accepted the apology we can't know, but in March, while building the bar that now stands in the area of the apparition, the Biringers heard one of the old intercom bells ringing from the front of the building in staccato bursts.Brrrng! Brrrrrrrng! Brrrrng!
Biringer Jr. checked the circuit and found the only ringer it could be coming from was the one just feet from where they were working.Jump to Part 1, 2,Continue to Part 2